When a single ray of light shines into a prism, it refracts into the colors of the rainbow. No one color is more prominent than the others, but each contributes to the beauty of light.
We might liken the doctrine of the atonement in the early church to a single ray that enters a prism and refracts into many colors of doctrine. These fathers and mothers of the church appreciated and exhausted the various ways Scripture speaks of Christ’s work on the cross. Penal substitutionary atonement—the idea that Jesus was punished in our place—is certainly one of those colors, even if it’s no brighter than the other colors in their writings.
And here we must navigate between two wrong ideas. The first error, which is the most common among scholars, is to suggest that the early church never spoke of penal substitution, which I hope to dispel. The second error, more common among evangelicals, is to overstate the case and read penal substitution into texts.
We might liken the doctrine of the atonement in the early church to a single ray that enters a prism and refracts into many beautiful colors of doctrine.
And in our search for penal substitution, we run the risk of missing out on many of the other beautiful ways the early church spoke of the atonement, from Christus Victor (the Ransom Theory) to Christus Medicus (Christ as our Healer). At the risk of being monochromatic, some evangelicals have undervalued the full array of the atonement—and so we could benefit from those who saw the entire spectrum, even if we rightly continue to see penal substitution as the foundation of the atonement. Steering between these two errors, I want to sample three church fathers and one church mother to show that the concept of penal substitution was present in the early church.
Before turning to examples that seem clear to me, I want to start with an excerpt from 1 Clement, since it serves as a caution against seeing penal substitution everywhere in early Christian theology. First Clement is the earliest writing we have after the New Testament. It was yet another letter to the wayward Corinthian church that still couldn’t get along.
In focusing on the love of God and exhorting those in Corinth to follow Jesus’s example of love, Clement wrote, “Because of the love that he had for us, Jesus Christ our Lord, in accordance with God’s will, gave his blood for us, and his flesh for our flesh, and his life for our lives” (1 Clem. 49:6).
Tucked into what we might call a moral example theory of the atonement is the notion of substitution. Jesus expressed his great love by substituting himself in our stead. But just because there is substitution doesn’t mean there is penal substitution, because there must be a penalty involved to make it penal substitution, which is not clear in this text.
The concept of substitution was widespread in the first few centuries, which has led some students of the early church to overread these texts; but there must be a link to a legal idea, which the next three examples draw out.
Eusebius of Caesarea
One of the best pieces of evidence for penal substitution comes from a surprising source: Eusebius of Caesarea, best known for his Ecclesiastical History. He wrote a lesser-known book, The Proof of the Gospel, to persuade unbelievers and to strengthen the faith of believers.
At one point, he takes great pains to lay out the curses of the Mosaic law and the penalties it required. Sin always demands a penalty. Quoting from Isaiah 53:5 (“he was pierced for our transgressions”), Eusebius argues:
“In this he shows that Christ, being apart from all sin, will receive the sins of men on himself. And therefore he will suffer the penalty of sinners, and will be pained on their behalf; and not on his own” (Proof of the Gospel, 3.2).
Here is the essence of penal substitution—Jesus took our penalty on himself so that we might be spared God’s wrath. Many scholars have failed to see the explicit connection between the atonement and penalty in the early church, and yet here is a clear example. Throughout Eusebius’s work, penalty is mentioned several times as it relates to Christ bearing the punishment we deserved.
Macrina the Younger
Several of the most important figures in the fourth-century Trinitarian debates were the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus. But Basil and Gregory of Nyssa had a sister who was also well-known in their day, Macrina the Younger, whom her brothers looked to as the model of piety and love for Christ. After she died, Gregory of Nyssa wrote about her life and quoted her final words:
You redeemed us from the curse and from sin, having become both on our behalf. You have crushed the heads of the serpent who had seized man in his jaws because of the abyss of our disobedience. You have opened up for us a path to the resurrection, having broken down the gates of hell and reduced to impotence the one who had power over death.
Hell is the penalty and Satan the enemy. And yet Christ has redeemed us by becoming both our sin and our curse on our behalf. He substituted himself and paid the penalty of sin’s curse. Macrina’s dying words brimmed with hope in the substitution of Christ, redemption from sin, triumph over the Devil, and the expectation of resurrection.
Epistle to Diognetus
The crown jewel of penal substitution in the early church is found in the second-century apologetic work called the Epistle to Diognetus. Although lengthy, this paragraph is the single best description of penal substitution in the first few centuries, and quite possibly in the history of the church:
In his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins? In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners! (Epistle to Diognetus, 9.2–5).
The crown jewel of penal substitution in the early church is found in the Epistle to Diognetus.
“O sweet exchange!” Christ for us! Jesus took on our sins because he was holy, guiltless, just, incorruptible, and immortal, whereas we are lawless, guilty, unjust, corruptible, and mortal. We needed to hide our sins in him and to receive his righteousness, a beautiful expression of double imputation (our sins to Jesus; his righteousness to us). But notice, too, that he mentions Christ as our ransom. In this one passage, several hues of the atonement are present.
Colors of the Rainbow
We end where we began, with the colors of the rainbow. This is fitting since the fathers squeezed out meaning from every word of Scripture, including color. One image they used repeatedly for the atonement was Rahab’s scarlet thread, hung from her window for her salvation (Josh. 2:18), which many in the early church took as the blood of Christ.
To cite Clement once more, “And in addition they gave [Rahab] a sign, that she should hang from her house something scarlet—making it clear that through the blood of the Lord redemption will come to all who believe and hope in God” (1 Clem. 12:7–8).
For those in the early church, for the reformers, for modern evangelicals, and for all who would ever seek salvation in Jesus Christ, our hope is in his blood, poured out to avert the wrath we deserve.
Author’s Note: For a helpful treatment on penal substitution in the fathers, one that I turned to for this essay, see Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach, Pierced for Our Transgression: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Crossway, 2007), 161–83, though they overlook the apostolic fathers, such as Clement and Diognetus.